After a series of curious events, I’ve become interested in — button hooks. The elements for a new short story are falling into place and this Victorian item figures to play a prominent role.  As it usually happens in my creative process, I didn’t find the button hooks. They found me.

It began with a conversation centring on an animated painting by Amanda Nedham, the focus of which was lost histories, obsolescence and the Industrial Revolution. How could I weave related ideas into a short story with ‘high concept’? I’m still working that out, but in the meantime, I ‘ve been thinking about people whose livelihoods were eliminated by emerging technologies. I’ve been simmering that idea.

William and David Stewart, father and son, in their Toronto shoemaker shop. (Photo courtesy of the Stewart family)

A neighbourhood acquaintance showed me some treasures unearthed during an excavation on their property. The shovels had revealed an old hammer and some prescription bottles from the 1800s. Also turned up were a child’s pair of black lace-up boots. The layers of leather that had been cut and nailed together to form the heel, were now curling up at the edges. At the time, I thought, how interesting and ironic. Weeks earlier, I’d visited a friend whose ancestors owned one of the earliest tanneries in our area. Her great uncles had been shoemakers in Toronto.

In another twist, one of our children introduced me to an online search site called Stumble. There, I discovered a video about a group of young designers who applied themselves to creating an button fastener that would allow an elderly man with limited dexterity to button his own shirts. This past weekend, my inlaws visited. During our chat, I mentioned the creation of the button fastener, thinking it to be such a novel item. My mother inlaw’s eyes lit up as she recounted her own story of the buttonhook.

Newly arrived immigrants at Ellis Island underwent health checks by US doctors of the US Public Health Services. The doctors used button hooks to fold eyelids back on themselves so they could check for diseases of the eye. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of Family History)

When she was a child in the Netherlands, her grandmother used a button hook to do up her shoes. Although she was a child at the time, my mother in law required a button hook as well to do up her shoes.  There was on nail on the wall from which the button hook was meant to hang. Every time someone needed to put on or take off a pair of boots, the hook was no where to be found.  The answer to this problem was the chatelaine, from which several useful items like hooks, sewing and writing implements could be suspended. The chatelaine was pinned or hooked on the waistband.

Sterling chatelaine with pin back: glove hook, mirror, perfume, aide memoire or notepad, repousse pill box engraved, 1897 (Photo source: Morning Glory Antiques and Jewellery)

A bit of research turned up some interesting facts. Women’s leather boots were crafted from soft leather that hugged the ankle for a feminine shapely fit. The popularity of tight fitting corsets made bending over to button a shoe very uncomfortable. Button hooks were typically 3 to 12 inches in length. The user would push it through the button hole to where it would hook a button and be pulled back through the hole.

Photo source unknown
Photo source unknown

Button hooks were also useful for doing up the rows of tiny blouse buttons that often ran from neck to hip. Victorian women were very fond of their gloves which, being snugly buttoned, required a hook as well.

Photo sources: winterthurlibrary; Americana

The demand for high buttoned boot for women fell by the wayside. Leather shortages during the First World War contributed to their passing popularity and demand for button hooks dwindled.

I’ve enjoyed my foray into the world of button hooks, but alas I must run off. There is a story to be written!

Do you have a story to share? Perhaps an anecdote or some trivia?

Please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you.